The Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Got Soul
By Emily J. Weitz
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is celebrating 40 years of parties, second lines, funerals and weddings. It has served up its own recipe of soulful New Orleans music from its hometown to Russia to China. When it comes to the Stephen Talkhouse on August 23, it guarantees an experience that satisfies mind, body and soul.
Even though brass bands traditionally played certain music, like “When the Saints” and “I’ll Fly Away,” The Dirty Dozen Brass Band would never remain confined to those structures. Even in the 70s, it was introducing fresh takes on brass band music, re-interpreting music from other genres.
“I was studying Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington at the time,” said baritone sax player Roger Lewis, who’s been with the band since 1976. “I brought that to the band, and we started rehearsing this complex music. Along with traditional marches and gospel, we started playing Caravan, and Night Train, and the music of Michael Jackson, and funk, and avant-garde.”
Even though there was some resistance among the old guard, Lewis says that the audiences ate it up.
“We caught the ear of a producer,” said Lewis, “and we signed on with Concord Records. We started going to jazz festivals all over the world — festivals with Miles Davis and Count Basie. People all over the world embraced this music.”
Most brass bands include a sousaphone, a snare drum, a bass drum, a trombone, a clarinet and a trumpet. The Dirty Dozen throws a tenor sax and a baritone sax into the mix, and that changes the sound completely.
“The way the baritone sax functions in the band is as a free agent,” explained Lewis. “It could play with the rhythm section, or the bass line, or the horns. It could react to the sousaphone, playing a counter-bass. The baritone sax plays what you might expect a trumpet to play, and that gives it a totally different sound.”
The way Lewis plays, he approaches the baritone sax as others might play a tenor sax. He’ll play the upper register as well as the lower notes. That’s because he started out playing tenor sax for the band, and only moved to baritone sax when they hired another tenor player.
“I can use both concepts,” said Lewis. “You can approach the instrument like a baritone player, or like a tenor player playing the baritone. The baritone speaks on a lower register, but I approach it like a tenor.”
The improvisation of the band makes it like an ongoing conversation that the audience gets to witness.
“We communicate,” said Lewis. “The bass player will play one thing, and then I play what I think he should be playing. It’s a unique thing.”
Lewis, who used to play with Fats Domino, says even though most bands don’t feature baritone sax solos, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band encourages them. That lends another layer of intrigue to the sound, because the baritone sax has a sound like a low, beautiful bellow.
“It’s a soulful instrument,” said Lewis.
When the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performs, as it does about 200 times a year, it’s more than just a musical experience. It puts on a show.
“We’re the world’s greatest party band,” said Lewis. “We got the funk, the jazz, the comedy. Watch out for the dirty old man at the end. You gotta spank and thank him. We’re like a vaudeville act.”
But they also understand that people seek out music for different reasons. They like to satisfy every appetite.
“Some like to sit down and analyze the music,” said Lewis. “Others want to dance. And we make you feel. That’s how we cover your mind, body and soul. You go home with a smile on your face and music in your soul.”
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band will play the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett on Wednesday, August 23, at 8 p.m. Visit stephentalkhouse.com for tickets.